is supported by our Pitmaster Club. Also, when you buy with links on our site we may earn a finder’s fee. Click to see how we test and review products.

This Whole Head, Pit Cooked Barbacoa Keeps Texas Traditions Alive

lamb barbacoa tacos with salsa picante

For thousands of years, cultures throughout the world have cooked food in the ground. From the Hawaiian Imu cooking to the North American clambake, these traditions were expressions of creativity and of necessity, facilitating an even, slow cooking of the food.

The origins of barbacoa are no different. Although today it’s prepared using different methods, the concept of cooking a whole beef head in the ground with wood coals was known in the Aztec culture as tatema. Throughout Mexico and South Texas, barbacoa may refer to different meats and styles of preparation. In this case, I am referring to the process of slow cooking, overnight, a whole beef or lamb head in a pit in the ground, wrapped in maguey leaves. It’s just one of the traditional methods used by vaqueros, the Latin American cattle herders who once roamed the plains of Texas and Mexico.

vaquero in field with cattle

To this day, we prepare this entire recipe in the backyard on my family’s ranch, from harvesting the maguey leaves to digging the pit and gathering the mesquite. You can make it by simply cooking in a hole dug directly into the ground that’s then been lined with rocks or firebricks, or you can slide a barrel (or two large pipes, as we did) into a hole to make a more permanent in-ground barbecue. Either way, this kind of pit cooking keeps age-old traditions alive.

Like what you’re reading? Click here to get Smoke Signals, our free monthly email that tells you about new articles, science, recipes, product reviews, mythbusting, and more. Be Amazing!

Texas Style Lamb Barbacoa Recipe

lamb barbacoa tacos
Tried this recipe?Tell others what you thought of it and give it a star rating below.
5 from 1 vote
This technique of slow-smoking a beef or lamb head wrapped in maguey leaves in a traditional underground pit has been used in many cultures for thousands of years. I grew up eating this kind of whole-head barbacoa with tortillas on my family's ranch in Texas.

Main Course


6 to 8 pounds of cooked meat
Servings: 20


Prep Time: 4 hours
Cook Time: 8 hours
Total Time: 12 hours


  • Shovel
  • Rocks or firebricks
  • Mesquite wood chunks
  • Chimney starter 
  • Metal cable 


About the pit. Instead of digging a hole in the ground, you could use a pit barrel or even a kettle grill instead. Line the bottom with rocks or firebricks as described, and then build a wood fire or charcoal fire on the rocks or bricks. Proceed as directed, lowering your pot into the pit or grill and putting on the lid (and closing any air vents) to smother the fire.
Metric conversion:

These recipes were created in US Customary measurements and the conversion to metric is being done by calculations. They should be accurate, but it is possible there could be an error. If you find one, please let us know in the comments at the bottom of the page


  • Fire Up. Dig a 36-inch-diameter hole 4 to 5 feet in the ground (or see Notes for alternatives).
    mesquite pit
  • Line the bottom of the pit with rocks or firebricks.
  • Build the fire using large (6-by-18-inch) chunks of mesquite wood.
  • For the maguey leaves, prepare an open fire on a grill. The mesquite fire in the pit will be too hot.
  • Prep the maguey leaves. Use gloves when handling raw maguey leaves, as their juice is a natural skin irritant. Trim away the spines along the sides of each leaf. Best to do this outside as it can get messy!
  • Grill the maguey. Cook the maguey leaves on the grill or over hot coals until they are pliable and the liquid has been completely extracted, 10 to 15 minutes. You will hear them pop and sizzle.
  • Prep the lamb. Using a paring knife, make incisions in the lamb head and then stuff them with garlic cloves. Season all over with salt then slather all over with 4 cups of the salsa.
  • Use a large pot that has a top. It will be inserted into your pit. Overlap the cooked maguey leaves vertically, so as to completely line the bottom and sides of the pot. The tips of the leaves may hang over or out of the rim. 
  • Place the lamb head inside the pot with the nose facing up. Fold over the maguey leaves to completely wrap the lamb head.
    marinated lamb in maguey leaves
  • Add 3 to 4 inches of water and then secure the lid to prevent steam from escaping. You can tie it or weigh it down with a rock.
  • Use a metal cable to lower the pot into the pit in the ground. Make sure not to use rope as it could burn. Cover the hole thoroughly, so that no air can escape. For example, you can use a piece of sheet metal on top. Corrugated roof panels can also work. Do not use wood as the fire is too hot. Cover the metal top and the area surrounding the hole with dirt. Covering the hole will cut off the oxygen source to the fire, leaving only the heated rocks and the burning coals, which allows hot steam to cook the meat without a raging fire overcooking the meat. 
    cooking pot inside earth pit
  • Cook the lamb. Steam until the meat falls off the bone, a process that should take 8 hours. Be sure to watch your timing. If the meat isn't fully cooked, the fire will no longer be hot enough to put it back in the ground and continue cooking. 
  • Remove the meat from the bones then separate it by cuts such as tongue, cheek, and so on. Or slice and serve all the meat mixed together. 
  • Serve. Reap the benefits of all your hard work. Served the sliced or shredded meats on tortillas with the remaining 2 cups salsa, some onion, cilantro and lime wedges for squeezing. 

Related articles

Published On: 8/17/2021 Last Modified: 8/26/2021

  • Adrian Davila -

    Adrian Davila is the award-winning third-generation pitmaster of Davila’s BBQ in Seguin, Texas. He continues to honor his family’s legacy and the traditions of Mexican-American cooking, all while exploring his own unique identity. His grandfather, Raul Davila, opened Davila’s in 1959, and passed the secrets of his smoked barbecue to Adrian’s father, Edward. The family is proud [...]

If you help us, we’ll pay you back bigtime with an ad-free experience and much more!

Millions come to every month for quality tested recipes, tips on technique, science, mythbusting, product reviews, and inspiration. But it is expensive to run a website with more than 4,000 pages and we don’t have a big corporate partner like TV network or a magazine publisher to subsidize us.

Our most important source of sustenance is people who join our Pitmaster Club, but please don’t think of it as a donation. Members get 21 great benefits. We block all third-party ads, we give members free ebooks, magazines, interviews, webinars, more recipes, a monthly sweepstakes with prizes worth up to $2,000, discounts on products, and best of all a community of like-minded cooks free of flame wars. Click below to see all the benefits, take a free 30 day trial membership, and help keep this site alive.

Post comments and questions below


1) Please try the search box at the top of every page before you ask for help.

2) Try to post your question to the appropriate page.

3) Tell us everything we need to know to help such as the type of cooker and thermometer. Dial thermometers are often off by as much as 50°F so if you are not using a good digital thermometer we probably can’t help you with time and temp questions. Please read this article about thermometers.

4) If you are a member of the Pitmaster Club, your comments login is probably different.

5) Posts with links in them may not appear immediately.



Click for comments...


These are not ads or paid placements. These are some of our favorite tools and toys.

These are products we have tested, won our top awards, and are highly recommend. Click here to read how we test, about our medals, and what they mean.

Use Our Links To Help Keep Us Alive

A big part of this site is our unbiased equipment and product reviews. We love playing with toys and we have no problem calling them the way we see them. Some companies pay a finder’s fee if a reader clicks a link on and buys a product. It has zero impact on our reviews, zero impact on the price you pay, and the sites never tell us what you bought, but it has a major impact on our ability to keep this site alive! So before you buy, please click our links. Here’s a link that takes you to a page on Amazon that has some of our favorite tools and toys:

Fireboard: The Ultimate Top Of The Line BBQ Thermometer

Fireboard Labs Product Photo Shoot. Kansas City Commercial Portrait and Wedding Photographers ©Kevin Ashley Photography

With the ability to monitor up to six temperatures simultaneously with either Bluetooth or Wifi on your mobile phone, tablet, or computer, Fireboard is the best digital thermometer we’ve tested.
Click here to read our detailed review

The Pit Barrel Cooker May Be Too Easy

The PBC has a rabid cult following for good reason. It is absolutely positively without a doubt the best bargain on a smoker in the world. Period. This baby will cook circles around the cheap offset sideways barrel smokers because temperature control is so much easier.

Click here to read our detailed review and the raves from people who own them

Bring The Heat With Broil King Signet’s Dual Tube Burners

3 burner gas grill

The Broil King Signet 320 is a modestly priced, 3-burner gas grill that packs a lot of value and power under the hood. Broil King’s proprietary, dual-tube burners get hot fast and are able to achieve high, searing temps that rival most comparatively priced gas grills. The quality cast aluminum housing carries a Limited Lifetime Warranty.

Click here to read our complete review

The Undisputed Champion!

Thermapen One Instant Read Thermometer

ThermoWorks’ Thermapen ONE provides an accurate reading in one second or less. The ONE also includes features that are common on high-end instruments: automatic backlight, rotating display, and water resistant seals. Don’t accept cheap substitutes.
Click here to read our comprehensive Platinum Medal review

Blackstone Rangetop Combo: Griddle And Deep Fryer In One

The flat top does the burgers and the fryer does the fries. Use the griddle for bacon, eggs, grilled cheese, and so much more. And why deep fry indoors when you can avoid the smell and mess by doing it outside!

Click here to read our detailed review and to order

The Good-One Is A Superb Grill And A Superb Smoker All In One

The Good-One Open Range is dramatically different from a traditional offset smoker. By placing the heat source behind and under the smokebox instead of off to the side, Open Range produces even temperature from left to right, something almost impossible to achieve with a standard barrel shaped offset.

Click here to read our complete review

Our Favorite Backyard Smoker

The amazing Karubecue is the most innovative smoker in the world. The quality of meat from this machine is astonishing. At its crux is a patented firebox that burns logs above the cooking chamber and sucks heat and extremely clean blue smoke into the thermostat controlled oven. It is our favorite smoker, period.
Click here for our review of this superb smoker